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IFANS Focus The Sino-Soviet Dispute and North Korea’s Equidistant Diplomacy: Analysis and Implications LEE Sang-sook Upload Date 2021-04-30 Hits 806
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As the relationship between the U.S. and China looks set to solidify into prolonged and intensified strategic competition, it is imperative that we forecast the diplomatic path North Korea would take to navigate the conflict between two great powers and explore ways to respond to it. To forecast Pyongyang’s next moves, it would be necessary to shed light on the regime’s previous diplomatic strategies, and the tactic it had employed during the Cold War to navigate tensions between China and the Soviet Union. 

This article aims to present a detailed analysis of North Korea’s diplomacy and highlight a couple of takeaways by revisiting the Sino-Soviet dispute during the Cold War. Based on this analysis, this article will forecast Pyongyang’s prospective foreign policy and explore how the Korean government can chart its way forward. 

In general, two competing countries and another state where these two opposing nations both have relations must form a triangle relationship for a policy of “equidistance”or “equidistant diplomacy”to work. Two competing forces have clashing interests in the remaining country in the triangle, or carefully weigh competing interests to find the right balance. Equidistant diplomacy, therefore, refers to a strategy of being equidistant from two competing powers. Depending on the agenda and circumstances, a state caught between two opposing countries supports either side for its benefit or tries to maintain relations with both countries by not openly disagreeing with one side’s position. 

Equidistant diplomacy has several distinctive characteristics. First, three states are constituting a triangle, and the state which conducts equidistant diplomacy targets the remaining two countries. Second, the relationship between the two target countries is far from the one commonly seen in other triangle relationships;  two states are locked in confrontations and struggle to keep each other in check. Third, the country that utilizes equidistant diplomacy, even if it is a weak nation, can benefit more than two competing powers. Fourth, the strategy of maintaining equidistant relations becomes ineffective should the two competing countries work to ease tensions and develop bilateral relations.

During the Sino-Soviet split, the two sides locked in confrontation had different interests, so conditions were ripe for North Korea to conduct equidistant diplomacy to serve its interests. It is possible to assume that North Korea would once again try to stay equidistant from the U.S. and China to navigate the intensifying great power rivalry, just as when Pyongyang tried to carve out a place for itself amid the Sino-Soviet rift using this tactic. But there will be clear limits to pursuing this strategy as the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang is not amicable. The regime will have to develop its relationship with Washington to a certain point if it wants to use equidistant diplomacy and get the desired effect. This article will offer a perspective on how North Korea will carve out its foreign policy after its efforts to develop relations with Washington bear some fruit.

In early 1956, Sino-Soviet relations began deteriorating consequent to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of the USSR and his declaration of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the early days of the Sino-Soviet split, conflicts between China and the Soviet Union were not so severe, so North Korea took a cautious step and supported the Soviet Union’s policy. North Korea after the Korean War needed both China and the Soviet Union to keep itself secure and was in desperate need of economic assistance from both sides. The regime did not articulate a clear stance on the dispute accordingly. 

In 1960, the Soviet Union recalled all its specialists and advisers from China without any consultation, suspended all exchanges with China, and cut off its security and economic assistance. North Korea effectively employed equidistant diplomacy to carve out a place for itself. North Korea’s attempts at bolstering relations with China did not sour its relationship with the Soviet Union. The country managed to secure economic and security assistance from China while maintaining relations with the Soviet Union to safeguard its security. North Korea also deepened its relations with the Soviet Union, because Pyongyang desired something that was out of China’s reach but possessed by the Soviet Union – military power and science technology. In 1961, North Korea signed treaties including security provisions with both countries and managed to secure security assistance from the two countries. The treaties gave North Korea a pretext to argue that it is not obliged to intervene in a clash between China and the Soviet Union. 
  
Since 1962, both countries have called on socialist states to choose sides. North Korea supported China because what mattered to Pyongyang was whether China and the Soviet Union would support other states’national liberation movements. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal of missiles from Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and its neutral stance on the Indo-China border conflict has made North Koreans skeptical of the security guarantee provided by the Soviet Union. In November 1962, a North Korean military delegation visited the Soviet Union to ask for military assistance but returned home empty-handed, and North Koreans became more critical of the Soviet Union. North Korea around that time was lopsided in favor of China but was skeptical of Beijing’s security capabilities. This has led then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to adopt the so-called Byungjin line to simultaneously advance national defense and the economy. To give concrete shape to this new policy, Kim enunciated a strategic vision known as the "Four Military Lines" that called for the arming of the people, the fortification of the entire country, the training of soldiers as a cadre force, and the modernization of farms. 

The Sino-Soviet rift was triggered by ideological conflicts but later morphed into a security conflict. Much of this was attributable to the Soviet Union’s suspension of security-related technology transfers such as nuclear technologies. Likewise, North Korea that leaned heavily toward China returned to equidistant diplomacy because China refused to share its nuclear technologies with the North. In October 1964, China conducted its first nuclear test, and its refusal to transfer related technologies to the North Korean regime has resulted in the revival of Pyongyang’s equidistant diplomacy. North Korea at this time sought to maintain a subtle balance between two countries; it refrained from criticizing Premier Alexei Kosygin who came to power in October 1964 and arranged his state visit to the North in February 1965. The country’s efforts at seeking equidistance bore fruit as North Korea managed to sign a border treaty with China from 1962 to 1964 and gained economic benefits by interacting with the Soviet Union under Kosygin’swatch.  

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 led to America’s full-scale involvement in the Vietnam War. Before the outbreak of the Vietnam War, China argued that war on colonies could be put to an end by actively supporting revolutionary movements. But Beijing was reluctant to confront what appeared to be U.S. imperialism from Pyongyang’s point of view, and China’s reluctance raised doubts about its willingness to support national liberation movements. North Korea and China were at odds over Pyongyang’s economic and military aid to North Vietnam; North Korea sent 30 pilots and 10 MiG-21 jets to North Vietnam after a Polish special military envoy visited Pyongyang in July 1966. In August 1966, in the Rodong Sinmun editorial titled “Let’s Defend Self-Reliance,”North Korea declared its shift to an independent and self-reliant diplomatic line opposing both Soviet revisionism and Chinese doctrinism and sought to remain equidistant from the two countries by withdrawing its support for both parties. North Korea’s declaration of a self-reliant diplomatic line in 1966 gave the regime more autonomy in foreign relations while allowing it to focus on building up its defense capabilities. In October 1968, China announced it will bring an end to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and sought to overcome isolation, but relations between North Korea and China deteriorated in 1969 when an armed conflict broke out on the North Korea-China border. North Korea ramped up its self-reliance diplomacy efforts while promoting self-reliance on the security front by seeking to advance its defense capabilities. 

An analysis of North Korea’s equidistant diplomacy during the Sino-Soviet dispute offers insight into how North Korea will formulate its foreign policy in the years ahead. First, North Korea’s equidistant diplomacy worked when there existed two competing countries, so if the U.S. and China choose to chart a path toward cooperation, it will be impossible for Pyongyang to conduct equidistant diplomacy. North Korea failed to keep itself equidistant from the U.S. and China in the 1990s because the two countries sought to cooperate. Second, North Korea might once again try to stay equidistant from two great powers to maximize benefit. Amid ever-intensifying great power competition, the North Korean regime will double down on its efforts to leverage the ongoing competition to advance national interests. Thirdly, North Korea is concerned about its growing dependence on China and will seek to improve relations with the United States to avoid over-dependence on China. During the Sino-Soviet split, North Korea at first was ideologically aligned with and lopsided in favor of China, but later restored its relationship with the Soviet Union to not become too much dependent on Beijing. Immediately after the end of the Cold War, the regime engaged in a dialogue with U.S. officials and communicated a message that the U.S. should develop relations with the North to keep China in check. It should be noted that Pyongyang made tangible efforts to improve its relationship with Washington. 

A closer look at North Korea’s past equidistant diplomacy efforts and its prospective foreign policy suggests how the Korean government should deal with North Korea in the coming years. For starters, the Korean government should actively intervene in efforts to resolve North Korea issues to make sure that the North does not take related discussions forward in trilateral settings with China and the United States. The strategic competition between the U.S. and China is an irreversible trend, and against this backdrop, Pyongyang will try to maximize its interests by focusing on how to forge its relationship with Washington and Beijing. North Korea will strive to address its security issues, including the ones related to its nuclear arsenal, by maintaining a balance between the U.S. and China and consulting with both parties. And the North will likely exclude South Korea in this process and attempt to work with the U.S. and China in trilateral settings. To avoid this scenario, the Korean government should strive to become a key stakeholder that plays a positive role in resolving issues related to North Korea. 

Second, Korea should prepare for the possibility of North Korea using equidistant diplomacy to improve its relations with the United States. North Korea will try to develop its relations with the United States to advance national security interests and avoid overdependence on China. With tensions between the U.S. and China currently reaching acute levels, the North will likely capitalize on the escalating rift to advance its strategic value and reap benefits. Pyongyang will try to improve relations with Washington but will be wary of tilting in favor of one side. It will likely stay equidistant from both Washington and Beijing. The Korean government should closely observe North Korea’s future moves and develop strategic responses. 

Third, Korea must prepare for Pyongyang’s attempts to leave out Seoul after improving relations with Washington. After seeing some improvement in its relationship with the U.S., the regime will seek autonomy in foreign relations by excluding China and South Korea from the process of dealing with Korean peninsula affairs. When the Four-party talks began in earnest following the signing of the Agreed Framework in 1994, North Korea made constant efforts to exclude China. And the regime was reluctant to involve China in Korean peninsula affairs after the signing of the February 13 Agreement of 2007. If North Korea manages to develop its relations  with the U.S., it might seek to exclude both China and Korea from future efforts at addressing a broad range of issues surrounding the Korean peninsula. Therefore, Korea needs to keep its relations with the U.S. and China stable to navigate the path forward. 


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